Zero Dark Thirty: The Hunt for Bin Laden and a Heap of Controversy
For ten years one woman never stopped searching for the most wanted man in history.
Zero Dark Thirty, 10 Years Later
When Zero Dark Thirty arrived in December of 2012, ten years ago this week, it was hailed by critics as perhaps the definitive movie about the post-9/11 years. The film sought to tell the multi-year story that led up to the raid that captured and killed Osama Bin Laden on May 1, 2011, by following first the work of the CIA and then SEAL Team 6’s raid in Abbottabad.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, who had collaborated three years earlier on Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty portrayed itself as a journalistic look at the hunt for Bin Laden.
The film stars Jessica Chastain as “Maya,” a composite of several CIA agents who assisted in the hunt for the al-Qaeda leader. She is present for sessions using “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the Bush-era euphemism for torture, and later uses more traditional intelligence to help lead to Bin Laden’s hideout. We also see her pushing CIA brass (led by James Gandolfini, in one of his last roles, as Leon Panetta) to take the action they ultimately did.
The film depicted, probably better than any film since, the day-to-day lives of the people tasked with finding Bin Laden, with a long list of fantastic actors — Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, Edgar Ramirez, Man Duplass — playing CIA and other government functionary roles.
Zero Dark Thirty was met with massive controversy from the moment it arrived, which has continued to dog it ever since.
The charges were many: That it was inaccurate. That the film normalized, excused, or even extolled torture for leading directly to Bin Laden’s capture. That the filmmakers were way too close to the CIA, or even that they improperly used classified information. That the film was so bent on being apolitical that it was afraid to say anything positive or negative about the Bush or Obama Administrations.
There was even another film several years later, The Report, which told the story of the Congressional aide (Adam Driver) who wrote the report about the torture program; that film took several direct shots at Zero Dark Thirty. The Report took the position that not only was torture unspeakably evil but that the functionaries who sold the Bush Administration on it were essentially hucksters who made up their own pseudoscience and got the government to pay them for it. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t argue exactly that, but it doesn’t quite refute it, either.
Some of these criticisms are fairer than others. The film does, indeed, depict torture- a lot of it. But whether that torture led directly to Bin Laden’s capture is actually somewhat ambiguous in the film itself. Zero Dark Thirty is not an outright endorsement of the Bush-Cheney approach to antiterrorism, but it’s not an indictment of it either. And after all, the torture program was stopped when Obama came into office in early 2009, and it didn’t prevent Bin Laden from being captured more than two years later.
For their part, the filmmakers always claimed that the film was not meant to be a documentary. And some of its critics, led by the always-wrong Glenn Greenwald, saw it fit to trash the film without seeing it.
It would not be fair to call the film propaganda for any particular party or ideology. I guess the closest it comes to a point of view is in depicting the CIA as competent, but even then, it neither glosses over torture nor is reluctant to bring up the Iraq/WMD subject.
There’s no doubt, though, that Zero Dark Thirty is a fantastically made film. It has the bearing and style of a thriller, and the third-act raid on the Bin Laden compound, in which the SEALs are led by a pre-Marvel Chris Pratt, is truly great cinema.
The film was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, although its only win was a tie for Best Sound Editing. It shares with Argo, the film that beat it out for the top Oscar that year, that both are very exciting films about historical events, in which the story isn’t exactly true.